Tribute: Richard Schickel

Posted on February 21, 2017 at 11:02 am

The 1960’s-70’s was a golden era of American film, reflecting the upheavals of the culture around it. Film became more personal, more political, more confrontational. And that was true of film criticism, as well. A small group of critics with very strong, fearless, individual voices became enormously influential, like Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, and Roger Ebert, and the man whose loss we mourn today, Richard Schickel, longtime critic for TIME Magazine and author of many books on topics from Walt Disney to Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, and Charlie Chaplin.

In the Washington Post, Harrison Smith’s perceptive obituary notes that Schickel’s “reviews — and essays, books and documentary films — combined a straightforward literary style with a seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of Hollywood history.”

His writing was replete with references to earlier Hollywood films and figures, and was sometimes highly personal. He began “Brando,” his 1991 biography of the actor, with a “Dear Marlon Brando” letter that apologized for delving into the actor’s private life. Later in the book, he described the impact of Brando’s performance in “The Wild One” (1953), as an outlaw biker, this way: “Oh, Lord, it was glorious. We were thrilled down to our toes curling cowardly in our white bucks.”

For every actor or film Mr. Schickel praised, there seemed to be at least two he was happy to take down a notch. Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (1957), an existential drama starring Death incarnate, “made my teeth ache,” he wrote. Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller “Vertigo” (1958) was overrated; the drama of World War II homecoming “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946) was “undeniably lying and sentimental.”

On, Matt Zoller Seitz writes that Schickel was “always thinking about how certain movies fit into the culture and what effect they might have on it, even as he appreciated them at the level of craft.”

My his memory be a blessing.

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